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Archive for the ‘Project management’ Category

Over a year ago, I attended a webinar by the authors of Green Project Management, who argued convincingly that although projects fall on a spectrum from those that are green by definition to those that may have a few green elements, any project can be run in a more sustainable manner.

As it turns out, a lot of people are looking at ways to incorporate sustainability into project management. At a recent seminar I attended, Joel Carboni of Green Project Management (GPM) and Mark Reeson of QA Limited explained how to use their PRiSM methodology to make any project green – making sustainability an integral part of project management, not something tacked on as an afterthought.

Carboni and Reeson provide an approach to sustainability that goes beyond the well-known triple bottom line to assess 5 measurable elements of sustainability — people, planet, profit, product, and process — and encourages us to look at projects from a different angle. Their focus is not on the deliverable itself but on the method by which it is delivered. And they’re inspiring project managers around the world to make the shift to sustainability in business by being agents of change on a large scale.

Read more about their practical PRiSM methodology in my blog post for the SF Bay Area chapter of the Project Management Institute.

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Now and then, you hear something about Walmart going green. But what does this really mean? Isn’t Walmart an evil mega-store known for selling low-quality products and treating its employees badly? So how can we trust their talk about sustainability? I learned more about this last weekend, at a Green Project Management seminar titled “The Tipping Point: Walmart’s Journey to Sustainability.” Sustainability strategist Mikhail Davis discussed Walmart’s commitment to sustainability, from his vantage point of having been one of the consultants who helped them in this effort.

As Davis noted, sustainability is always a journey whose destination you never reach. But it’s undeniable, however you may feel about Walmart, that they’ve undergone a huge transformation — and most significant is the fact that as the world’s largest company, they’ve had a far-reaching influence that goes well beyond their own walls. In fact, a Sustainable Business Forum article notes that some prominent sustainability leaders consider Walmart’s green initiative to be “the best thing to happen to the environment in the U.S. in the past 10 years.”

Still, most people don’t think of using the words “Walmart” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. Walmart hasn’t fully succeeded in telling this story to the public because so much of their sustainability effort is hidden in their supply chain. Yet it was concern about their increasingly bad reputation that led CEO Lee Scott to adopt what he now looks back on as a defensive strategy. It wasn’t long till he was convinced to see sustainability as a business opportunity rather than just a way to stay out of trouble, and the strategy transformed into a long-term offensive one.

Walmart’s adoption of sustainability came from the top: there was no rank-and-file demand for it, and in many ways it wasn’t a natural fit for the company. However, a number of factors made it possible for this strategy to take hold there:

  • Walmart is a mission-driven company whose mission is to improve the lot of lower-income people by enabling them to purchase items at lower prices. It wasn’t hard to add sustainability to this mission, especially when it resulted in lower prices and healthier items.
  • Walmart’s “Ready, Fire, Aim” culture made the company willing to try new things and take risks.
  • Some aspects of the company’s leadership style helped move the strategy forward: Their quantitative leanings helped because the company was hyper-aware of anything that lowered prices and raised sales. Their tendency to be confrontational ensured that they’d push suppliers to do more.
  • The company motto “Eat What You Cook” encouraged executives to experience how their decisions affected things on the ground. While CEOs at many companies would consider it beneath them to go out to observe good and bad cattle ranching practices, this was not an issue at Walmart. Getting top executives to see environmental issues first-hand was an important tool in the move to sustainable practices.

The first step Walmart took was to calculate its carbon footprint. This is where Walmart’s story becomes especially interesting, because it was determined that 92% of the footprint was in the supply chain. A strategy was adopted with 3 sustainability goals, the 3rd being the most ambitious:

  • Use 100% renewable energy.
  • Produce zero waste.
  • Sell products that sustain resources and the environment.

To help achieve these goals, the company created networks of participants ranging all the way from Walmart to suppliers to government organizations, and even some NGOs that had previously been some of Walmart’s staunchest foes. Each network developed a sustainable pathway from the company’s current practices to sustainable practices.

They started with quick wins that could be implemented with existing technologies and business models, which helped them make rapid progress on their first 2 goals — and realize substantial savings. In a company with such a quantitative bent, this caught a lot of people’s attention and made it all the easier to move ahead with the overall strategy.

After the quick wins came innovation projects. One example of such a project was Peterbilt producing the first hybrid big rig truck for Walmart. When a company as large as Walmart approaches a supplier with a request, the supplier is more likely to commit the R&D dollars or provide special deals because they know how much business they’ll get in return. In another example of this, GE gave Walmart a deal on LED lights. Not only did this save the company in power costs, but it had an unintended benefit: LED lighting makes products look better, which leads to increased sales. The company’s sophisticated real-time inventory tracking tools allowed them to see this benefit immediately — a good illustration of how Walmart’s penchant for quantitative measures helps promote sustainability.

This example points to another interesting thing about Walmart: The move to sustainability was not driven by consumers any more than by employees. There’s still no widespread green market, and most people think of green as an elitist niche market. So Walmart hasn’t marketed the green aspect of its products as more than a nice side benefit.

They do promote green products by taking actions like placing them in strategic locations in the store — and they continue to keep prices low, showing that sustainability can be affordable. In some case that’s easy — fair trade coffees, for example, are cheaper because there’s no middleman. And in cases where it isn’t easy, Walmart still tries to find a way to go green while keeping products affordable. In a company that considered itself the expert in cutting costs, it’s interesting to see how sustainable practices have taken them even further.

Walmart’s sustainability strategy has endured and become a major part of the organization. The strategy’s effect has reached far beyond just cutting costs, reducing liabilities, and improving their reputation, though those are important benefits. It’s also energized the company and its employees and helped Walmart attract and retain talent by really engaging their ~ 2 million employees. And it’s encouraged innovation both within the company and throughout their extensive supply chain. Walmart still has some real issues to deal with — but whatever you think about them, becoming more green has allowed the world’s largest retailer to occupy a uniquely influential position in the green economy.

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We’ve all experienced the challenges of collaboration and communication in the workplace; those challenges are multiplying in our increasingly globalized working environments. And there’s a lot more to communicating than meets the eye; an important factor in workplace interactions is the social side of teams — which, after all, are made up of people. Given that having strong social ties is considered the greatest predictor of both happiness and the productivity and success of teams, this is not an area to overlook. Social connections help establish trust among team members and are key to working well together.

In a global work environment, we have many tools to help us stay in touch with our colleagues, the most prevalent being e-mail. But a great deal of important communication happens not over e-mail but in meetings and ad-hoc conversations. This is where being distributed, rather than co-located, puts team members at a disadvantage. Even in meetings, remote employees have trouble getting a word in — if a number of people are in a room, those on the phone are often overlooked. And as important as meetings are in getting things done, ad-hoc conversations are the number one way a group shares awareness and information. We all know how much easier it is to work with someone we can run into and talk to anytime.

Studies have shown what our own experience can confirm: we interact far more with people in close proximity, and even being in a different row of cubes or on a different floor can make a difference. In fact, a distance of 100 feet may be no better than many miles, and even short distances, such as 3 feet versus 20 feet, make a difference.

Where's the remote employee? Often, their only presence in a meeting is a phone on the table. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

So how do we keep communication going and establish trust when our co-workers are dispersed in different locations? It helps to use telconferencing software. But the technology often doesn’t work as expected, and even when it does, it doesn’t allow for the visuals and the kinds of interaction that are possible in person. The remote people on the screen may be small and hard to see, and they may not have a good view of the main meeting room.

A research team at Microsoft — which includes Mary Czerwinski, Gina Venolia, George Robertson, John Tang, and Kori Inkpen Quinn — have come up with a promising new solution: “Embodied Social Proxies” (ESPs).

Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

These are devices made up of a computer with a monitor picturing the remote employee, and a camera on top that tracks their gaze, so people in the room can see where they’re looking. The remote employee has both a wide-angle camera to see the whole room and a regular camera to look at each person in the room. And the ESP contains sophisticated audio conferencing. It’s simple to use — all you have to do is plug it in, and it’s ready to go.

Remote person's view through Embodied Social Proxy. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

It can be given a seat at a conference table or placed higher up, if the people in the room are standing. All of these features add up to a lot more than the effect you get just using laptops with audio and video, or other teleconferencing technology — there’s something about the roughly human scale of the ESP and the quality of the representation that makes a difference.

Even when meetings aren’t happening, the remote employee can keep the device turned on in their office, and you might see them when you’re walking by; Czerwinski has come across two remote employees talking from one ESP in an office to another in a different office.

ESP when the employee is not available. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

When the employee is not at their ESP, a default display can be kept on that shows basic status and availability information, such as whether the employee is on vacation or in a meeting, or what the weather is where they are. The information is kept abstract enough so as not to feel invasive. And keeping the ESP on helps increase the presence of the employee in the group.

So, do these ESPs make a difference? It turns out that they do, and Cerwinski has anecdotes to illustrate their often profound effect. In one case, a software architect in Silicon Valley who felt unappreciated by and disconnected from his team in Redmond was given an ESP. Four weeks later, the situation had turned around, and the morale of the entire team was greatly improved. In other situations, the ESPs help distributed team members get to know each other even when they’ve never met in person.

In fact, the devices have been such a hit that even people on different floors of the same building are asking for them, and the research team has distributed specs to workers at both Microsoft and other companies so they can create their own ESPs. The team has been working on various features and improvements, such as improved gaze direction and a robotic arm that can point. There has of course been talk of robots — but what’s amazing is the success they’ve achieved with relatively simple technology.

As serious as communications issues are in terms of sharing information and getting work done, what I find especially compelling about these devices is their ability to improve collaboration and social ties. In considering ways to increase happiness and productivity at work, social connection is one of the key areas of focus — and it’s one of the trickiest. In my group at Adobe, and I’m sure in many others, it’s increasingly rare to come across a team that is not at least somewhat distributed, and it’s therefore increasingly hard to maintain cohesiveness in a group. I have a direct report in Ottawa whom I’ve seen in person only a few times, and I work closely with a couple people in India whom I met for the first time just the other day. Others I may never meet. So, like many knowledge workers these days, we’re prime candidates for embodied social proxies. I hope we get the chance one day to see their effects firsthand.

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As someone interested in both project management and sustainability, I’ve been wondering how to bring the two together. And lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about green project management. But the discussion is often made up of questions — the main one being, What is green project management?

Like many people, I’ve tended to think of green project management as managing projects in specifically green industries, such as companies that promote renewable energy or electric vehicles. And of course, that qualifies. But at a recent webinar, Richard Maltzman and David Shirley, authors of Green Project Management, argued convincingly that although projects fall on a spectrum from those that are green by definition, such as a solar installation, to those that aren’t primarily about sustainability but have green elements, any project can be run in a more sustainable manner.

The business world is starting to see the benefits of sustainability. We’ve all heard stories about companies such as Walmart going green, and now more and more companies are finding that being more sustainable not only helps their bottom line but also improves their brand reputation. In fact, a recent MIT Sloan report notes that most businesses are anticipating “a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy.”

In spite of this, not everyone accepts sustainability as a natural part of the project management discipline. But Maltzman and Shirley make a strong case for “greenality” (a combined focus on green and quality) in managing projects. As they note, project management is already concerned with reducing costs, increasing value, and protecting scarce resources — all practices that fit nicely with being green. So it’s not much of a stretch to incorporate green practices and considerations into any project, not just those in a sustainable industry.

What can project managers do? It’s in relation to projects that aren’t obviously green that a project manager’s role becomes interesting. All projects affect the environment somehow, and a project manager can help mitigate that by considering the environmental effects of the project and also of the product resulting from the project.

A shift in thinking is required. As project managers, we must think beyond the confines of our project to consider:

  • The entire life cycle of a product resulting from our project. For example, a washing machine might be made with the greatest care taken to produce it in a sustainable manner, but it turns out that washing machines consume the most during use — much more than in their production, distribution, or disposal.
  • The project’s sponsor and beyond. We should consider the “ultimate sponsors, users of the product in the steady state, and in fact, an expanded set of stakeholders (like our grandchildren) who will inherit the environment in the long(er) term.”

This may be starting to sound more green than businesslike, but Maltzman and Shirley are quick to point out that sustainable practices are good for business (for more, see the “5 Assertions” on their Earth PM blog):

  • Understanding the green aspects of a project better equips project managers to identify and mitigate risks.
  • Running a project with green intent helps teams not only do the right thing but also do things right for the business.
  • Adopting an environmental strategy increases the chances for success of the product and the project.
  • Viewing projects through an environmental lens both encourages long-term thinking and allows the project to take advantage of the current “green wave.”
In addition to expanding our thinking, Maltzman and Shirley encourage project managers to do the following:
  • Be a change agent. This shouldn’t be a stretch, since every project is about change or it wouldn’t happen at all.
  • Connect our organization’s Environmental Management Plan to our project’s objectives — and if there is no EMP, create or help create one.
  • Ensure that both quality and sustainability (“greenality”) are built in to our thinking about a project, rather than bolted on as an afterthought.

As a project manager working on software documentation projects, I’ll have to think about how I can apply these concepts to my work. The only products I’m helping produce are somewhat amorphous ones such as help systems. For the most part no longer available in the form of printed manuals, our help systems have already become more green. And my employer, Adobe Systems, has a robust sustainability program. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to be done, and it will be interesting to think of ways that I can contribute as a project manager.

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My group at Adobe recently held a Program Manager Summit, an action-packed and informative two days during which we heard from speakers on topics from influencing without authority to change management to scrum. We also discussed The Happiness Advantage, prompted by a recent session with its author, Shawn Achor.

Although we covered a variety of topics, some common themes emerged that I think are valuable to all project managers — both at work and in the rest of life. But then, I think that just about any situation lends itself to project management. So here are some principles to follow in managing projects, and sometimes even managing life:

Turn problems into opportunities

Cultivating a positive attitude toward problems, as Shawn Achor advises, can make you happier and therefore more successful. This sounds simple, but it does require a shift in mindset. Some simple techniques, if practiced regularly, can help you achieve this in your own life. In the workplace, you can also find techniques to guide your team in this direction.

Scrum, an agile project management methodology, provides a framework that encourages people to move from complaining to thinking about how to solve problems. The Scrum Master focuses on removing obstacles, and in the daily meetings, team members are encouraged to help others find solutions to the issues they’re encountering.

Another approach is to encourage people, instead of criticizing an idea, to come up with a better one. Try asking everyone to rate the idea from 1 – 10, but then they must identify what would make it a 10.

In change management, resistance to a change is sought out rather than avoided. This allows you to address the issues and help move people from resistance to acceptance, or from the perception of a problem to perception of an opportunity. When you do this, sometimes those who’d initially resisted the most become the best allies in promoting a change.

Cultivate social bonds

I’ve already mentioned Shawn Achor’s assertion that happiness leads to success, and apparently this applies to the success of teams as well as that of individuals. And it turns out that one of the greatest predictors of happiness is the strength of one’s social network. So it should not be surprising that teams with stronger social ties are also more productive, and that part of the role of a Scrum Master is to help their team goof off together.

When people get busy and resources are tight, opportunities to socialize are generally the first things to go. But it’s a mistake to forego chances for personal connections and team building, which can help foster trust and healthy conflict, two of the foundations of a good team. If your team includes people in different time zones, don’t despair; we’ve found that social gatherings over video conference are surprisingly fun and effective.

Promote communication and transparency

In Scrum, the daily check-ins and other regular meetings encourage communication among all team members. And communication is at the core of change management — in order for people to understand a change and get behind it, they must get a clear explanation of the vision and business case that are prompting the change, as well as a roadmap for how the change will be accomplished.

Commitment Curve courtesy of Accenture

A useful change management tool is the Commitment Curve, which helps you to check on where people are in their resistance to or support of a change. It’s a good idea to assign people on your team to check in regularly with specific key influencers or stakeholders about where they are on the curve. This way, you can help people move up the curve toward support of the change, and if you find that people have slipped to a lower part of the curve, you have a chance to help them move back up. In our group, we’ll be assigning each program manager a set of people to check in with about key changes, which happen so often our fast-paced workplace.

Seek customer and stakeholder feedback

An important part of communicating effectively is to seek feedback from your stakeholders, as noted in the discussion of the Commitment Curve. In Scrum, feedback is frequent and is used to course-correct. This need not be confined to product development, the usual domain of Scrum. I can think of examples when it would have saved a lot of time and headaches in our group to test drive a new process before rolling it out — allowing us to find and fix issues early, before people needed to start using the process.

Fixes to top pain points for stakeholders sometimes turn out to be easy and cheap to implement. In Scrum, those top concerns are given high priority, so that the customer can see a fix early on. In any case, you can’t address your stakeholders’ needs if you don’t know what they are, so it’s crucial to seek their input and address it as best you can.

In addition, being aware of your stakeholders’ needs can help when you have to influence without authority, a standard situation for project managers. One of the best pieces of advice we got at the Summit was to ask, What’s in it for them? If you can help people get what they need, that will help you to influence them and the progress of your project.


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Does any project management not take place in a fast-paced, global environment? Undoubtedly, but some of us have yet to encounter that. So the session on this subject at the recent San Francisco Bay Area PMI Open Space provided a welcome opportunity to share experiences with others in the same situation and to get some useful tips.

Communication seems to be the biggest issue in most workplaces, and it’s only exacerbated with a global team. Following are some tips from this session on how to facilitate and improve communication.

Templates

Templates can save time; they should also be flexible. In my group, we use templates for all our help documentation project plans and schedules, so we don’t miss key steps and so others can easily find information. We amend these as needed, and for smaller projects we might delete a good deal of the information. But they give us a place to start. It helps to fill in a meeting or project template as much as you can before a meeting, revising it as needed during the meeting.

Collaboration tools

Many collaboration tools are now available for project management, SharePoint being a common one. People have differing opinions on each tool, but the key is to maintain some kind of central repository and collaborative dashboard. It’s especially helpful for the tool to include a way to track a project from start to finish. My group is looking at a couple tools created internally at Adobe; I’ll report back with details when we start using them.

Meetings and e-mail

We’ve become so accustomed to e-mail that it’s standard to e-mail even someone in the cube next to yours rather than getting up and talking to them. E-mail has advantages, such as serving as a written record of communications. But it tends to proliferate and become hard to keep up with, and e-mails can get lost in the shuffle. One way to mitigate this is to convert e-mail to something else — record or track e-mails in another tool. And when there get to be too many e-mails on one subject, it might be time to call a meeting.

It’s challenging to hold meetings with people in different locations, let alone different time zones. There’s no getting around the difficulties of holding meetings early in the morning or late at night. But a couple tips can help when meetings attendees are in different locations. First, keep in mind that if several people are in one room and the others are scattered on the phone, those in the room tend to dominate the discussion. In these cases, it might be better for everyone to be on the phone, to level the playing field. And if possible, it’s helpful to use a video conference; though many of us don’t like being on camera, we get so much more information through visual cues that it really does facilitate communication.

Status updates

Every week, I send my project teams a milestones e-mail so they know what’s due and what’s coming up. But I liked an idea I heard in this session for giving status updates: Create a visual representation, on one page, showing a window in time — and include what’s been accomplished, what’s due or overdue, and what’s coming up. This has the advantage of showing people what they’ve accomplished and gives them something to feel good about. And we know that when people are happier, they’re more productive! So I’ll be trying this method with my teams.

My cat when you don't respond to my message

A challenge I face with my milestones e-mail is getting people to respond to let me know the status of their tasks. I got a good idea from this session: tell people that if they don’t respond, I’ll come to their cube and talk at length about my cat (or if they’re remote, I’ll send an e-mail with photos). I tried this one week, only to find that my group is full of cat lovers — so this threat wasn’t dire enough.

My cat when she's happy that you've responded

Later in the week, I threatened to call a meeting if I didn’t get a status update, and that got quick results. But I can’t always call meetings, especially with people in India or China. So the following week, I thought about what really motivates people, and in my milestones e-mail, I included a poem by Emily Dickinson on shame, just to add a little interest and get people’s attention. And I got a few more responses. Gradually, people are getting the message.

The things we project managers resort to — are we shameless?

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We’re all faced with many decisions every day, and we tend to think we’re rational and in control, at least when it comes to simple decisions. Yet even seemingly simple decisions can turn out to be complex when you take all factors into account. So how do we know we’re making decisions in the best way possible? How do we evaluate our decisions? And can we learn to make better decisions? This topic has come up at more than one event I’ve attended recently: At the January dinner meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Project Management Institute, Dr. Errol Wirasinghe, author of The Art of Making Decisions, delved into these questions in an engaging and compelling talk. And decision making was a prevalent theme in the recent “Program Manager Summit” held by my group at Adobe.

Why is decision making so complex? For one, emotions and unconscious thoughts influence us more than we think, leading to irrational decisions. Think about simple decisions we make in our daily lives. Who hasn’t chosen to buy higher-priced items on the assumption that they must be of higher quality, without any proof that they are? And when we’re overwhelmed by too many choices, we can feel paralyzed and fail to make a decision at all. This is common in today’s world: not only do we have all kinds of choices our ancestors wouldn’t have dreamed of, but thanks to the Internet, we suffer from information overload.

As hard as it can be to make decisions in our private lives, at work we might encounter further obstacles. A pitfall to watch for in the modern workplace, where so much of our work is collaborative, is Groupthink, a situation in which a cohesive group tries to reach consensus and minimize conflict — often leading to bad decisions. The disadvantages of Groupthink can outweigh the many benefits of a working environment that values consensus over a hierarchical style. To avoid falling into Groupthink, it helps to create an environment that encourages healthy conflict, one of the pillars of a high-functioning team. Managing conflict well can allow a group to take advantage of the Wisdom of Crowds. This might seem counterintuitive in light of the dangers of Groupthink, but it turns out that when a group contains diverse individuals who are empowered to think for themselves, the group tends to arrive at better decisions than even an expert individual.

Another danger for groups that tend to work by consensus is that decisions won’t get made at all. Using tools like the DACI model can help, but what about simple decisions that must be made quickly? One of the speakers at our summit uses this method to facilitate making quick decisions: When a proposal is made, everyone in the room gives a thumbs-up, a flat hand (signaling neutral feelings), a thumbs-down, or a double-thumbs-down. Then, only the proposer and those with thumbs-down are allowed to speak, till a decision is arrived at. Presumably, this would work best in a culture that favors the Wisdom of Crowds over Groupthink.

For more complex decisions, more structured processes can help. Dr. Wirasinghe has developed a 7-step approach to making decisions (there’s a lot more to it than I can include here; see http://www.xpertus.com/):

  1. Clearly define objectives. Dr. Wirasinghe notes that at one point, the U.S. Army had given soldiers excellent training in shooting a gun, yet a large percentage of them were not killing the enemy. When the goal was changed to teaching the soldiers to kill, those numbers changed drastically. Whatever you may think of war and killing, this shows the value of a well-defined objective.
  2. Identify all relevant criteria. It’s important to select just the most relevant criteria — if you include too many, you’ll dilute each one. A good guideline is to cap the number at 8 – 12.
  3. Segregate the criteria. Decide which are obligatory and which are merely desirable.
  4. Identify all candidates/options. Creative thinking helps here, as opposed to critical thinking — because your best decision can only be as good as your best option.
  5. Gather information on the candidates or options. Note the pros and cons of each, based on the criteria you have selected. The more information you gather, the better informed your decision will be.
  6. Assign weights to the obligatory criteria. This is important because even the obligatory criteria don’t all have the same importance.
  7. Rank the candidates or options. It helps to use a pairwise analysis, comparing two criteria at a time, because it’s much easier to rate two items at a time than a larger number.

How do you determine if you’ve made a good decision? If you use Dr. Wirasinghe’s approach, an interesting method of validating your final ranking is to use an N-1 analysis, in which you look at what happens when you remove one criterion at a time. If removing one drives the decision, you may decide a certain criterion is not so important after all. For example, suppose that based on your combined criteria, Candidate A was clearly the one to hire for a job opening. However, if you remove the criterion that the person be available in 2 weeks, suddenly Candidate C becomes the obvious choice. In this case, you might ask if it’s worth waiting another week or two to hire the right person.

Whether decisions are simple or complex, when evaluating them, the outcome is only part of the story; the quality of a decision is not the same as the outcome. When things go wrong, ask which domain they went wrong in. And realize that knowledge and circumstances change. You may have made the best possible decision based on your knowledge at the time, but you may not have had all the knowledge you needed. Or new factors may have come into play, changing the outcome. Like everything else in life, all decisions must be temporary, and when circumstances change, even the best decision may have to be revisited. But if you have the right tools, then at least you have a better chance of making a good decision in the first place.

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